May 12: Sometimes what the camera does best is to stand and watch, as a mute witness.
The Venice Biennale, the ‘art olympics’, opens this weekend with Australia’s representative being Tracey Moffat whose vernissage was yesterday pronounced ‘a roaring success’ by the Sydney Morning Herald, raising hopes that this year will be the first time Australia is bestowed a ribbon.
This 57th International Art Exhibition is being held from May 13th to November 26th, 2017. With the press previews May 10th, 11th and today now over, it opens to the public tomorrow Saturday, May 13th. Expect to hear a lot about it. Here’s my pick…
There are other countries who have chosen a photographer or photo-based artist for their pavilions and one of them is Taiwan, which is showing Tehching Hsieh‘s Doing Time. Since time is what photography does, his show is of interest. Not only that, it is also among the first to open to the public, with an opening talk today 2pm – 4.30pm.
On 30th September 1978, Tehching Hsieh, then a young Taiwanese artist trained in painting, jumped ship to become an illegal immigrant in America in 1973. After two years of working as a dishwasher, he embarked on five consecutive year-long performances, starting each by releasing a statement that set strict rules to which he would commit for the entire year, but only after testing the concept on himself to see if he might be able to endure it. If he felt 75% certain that he could, he went ahead.
Doing Time exhibits two of Hsieh’s One Year Performances together for the first time; in two fastidiously documented installations.
In One Year Performance 1980-1981, Hsieh shaved his head and set up a factory time clock in his studio. Into the clock he inserted his time card on the hour, every hour, for a whole year, filming the procedure using a bulb release. The sixteen millimetre camera records the clock, the time card and his head and upper torso, all in exactly the same position each time.
He must have been semi-conscious for many of the shots made in between the forty minutes or so of semi-sleep (it’s a condition, sleep deprivation, that many, either the mother or both mother and father, endure in the first year of parenthood). The result was thousands of photographs all identical at first glance. It is in projection that they are confirmed to be mostly static; the clock hands rotate steadily around the hours, the time cards register the days. It is only the young man who wobbles and reels. As the stop-frame 16mm move shows it, he appears punch-drunk, as if he is being beaten up by this inexorable process, of passing time. Colloquially, the process of clocking on is just that; punching. His growing hair adds to the impression as it grows more unruly. His expression throughout remains patiently dogged; it is that of an assembly line worker.
His work, known by only a few, has come to attention only since 2000 when he stopped making art, thanks mainly to a 2009 MIT press monograph, Out of Now, co-authored with Adrian Heathfield. Tehching Hsieh’s name may be familiar to Australians because this work was exhibited at Sydney’s Carriageworks gallery May-July 2014. There, as in other displays of this work, the individual 16mm frames are set out in ranks, each frame a different hour, each row a different day, each subtly different, representing a slice of life and reminding us how our own lives stretch out, but start and end, full of sameness but never the same.
Their sheer number filled the entire, vast space. At the top of each strip was the time card for the day verifying that Hsieh had clocked on every hour. Amongst these ranks, black frames stand out. They mark the few occasions, only 131 instances, that Hsieh missed the hour, or where the recording equipment failed.
Tehching Hsieh was born on December 31st 1950 in Nan-Chou, Taiwan (he is just three days younger than me) and dropped out from high school in 1967 to take up painting. After finishing his army service (1970 – 1973), Hsieh had his first solo show at the gallery of the American News Bureau in Taiwan.
Shortly after this solo show, Hsieh stopped painting. He made a performance action, Jump, in which he broke both of his ankles in a leap from his second storey window.
In the other work being shown at the Biennale, One Year Performance 1981-1982, Hsieh subjected himself to a further sustained deprivation by remaining outside for a year without resort to any shelter.
To both of these works we might attach a political dimension; they can legitimately be read, in the first case as the interface of capital and labour, the monetization of time, an interpretation that appears supported by his wearing of a grey blue-collar worker’s shirt with its company patch (a machine embroider design bearing his name); in the second, Hsieh’s work makes us aware of the value of shelter, of ‘home’, but at the same time raising our consciousness of the plight of the homeless.
Hsieh however disavows any such intention. His investment in enduring these Sisyphean tasks is philosophical, stemming from a profound interest in the way time passes. For him these works are not feats of endurance, but experiments in the human perception of time. “Life is doing time,” he says.
Neither of these works exist without the documentation he made. Had you only heard about these remarkable feats you would put hem down to urban myth. But the camera remains his patient companion, his witness, providing the proof of what was done. The visual record has become de facto the performance. Along with the photographs, shot frame by frame on a 16mm movie camera, Hsieh recorded his experiences and the passage of time with remarkable rigor and precision through objects, maps, notations, and sound recordings, which together serve as impressive traces of the enormity of his oeuvre. Haphazardly, we archive our own lives, intermittently and often only to record the high times, but what Hseih has done is to record his with extraordinary foresight, planning in advance a portion of his life that he devotes to a particular action, and then committing to it.
He shows remarkable courage. He detached himself from the art world, divorced himself from its competitive structures in order to concentrate only on his chosen action. He remains throughout a fugitive presence, a mere trace, not the heroic artist. He draws on his ingenuity to survive not only the tasks he sets himself – incarceration, sleeplessness, injury, homelessness – but to stay alive, acknowledging that the endurance that makes his art is also achieved every day by those who have nothing.
The final room of Doing Time at the Venice Biennale, in the Taiwan pavilion in the Palazzo delle Prigioni, Castello 4209 (next to the Palazzo Ducale), reprises three of Hsieh’s previously unseen works: short performances and photographs, all made in Taipei in 1973, before his emigration. At the close of the exhibition a documentary, Outside Again, shows Hsieh at the age of sixty-five returning to the original sites of his performances in Taipei and New York to meditate on their impact. He has not made art since 2000 and says he no longer “feels creative.”
While Australia hopes for a ribbon, one is left to wonder; what is the purpose of art? If art is the practice of life, Tehching Hsieh must be a contender.